Flanked by first responders suffering from cancer, illness and injuries incurred from working at Ground Zero on the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, comedian Jon Stewart delivered a message on Capitol Hill Monday he has pushed on Congress, with growing frustration, for almost two decades now: Give 9/11 first responders the health care they deserve.
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The Victim Compensation Fund, first funded in 2001 and then, after more fights on Capitol Hill, again in 2010 and 2015, has provided compensation for New York Fire and Police Department first responders, as well not innocent bystanders, who breathed the harmful air full of toxic particles that day. Those chemicals are now known to have caused chronic, deadly illness.
But the VCF is now running out of money again, as the rate of illness and cancer among 9/11 survivors increases, and Congress must pass another bill to secure more funding.
A bill in 2011 dedicated $7.3 billion to the compensation fund -- but those funds are up against staggering, growing numbers: Since 9/11, 200 firefighters have died from 9/11 related ailments, almost surpassing the 300 firefighters who died on the day of the attack.
The message from Stewart, 9/11 responders and the bipartisan senators and representatives who introduced the bill was simple: Stop bringing these New Yorkers back to the Hill to rehash the same fight.
"This is nonsense. You guys know it, I know it. This is theater. We're all down here today, there's no reason to have dragged these people down here, there's no reason to have these conversations," Stewart said, somberly adding that it should be as simple to fund this previously-passed bill as it is to refill a Starbucks card.
"This is your opportunity to write a final chapter for these men and women who fought for 18 years -- they fought when nobody believed they were sick, they fought when nobody believed their sickness was caused by 9/11, they fought when nobody thought their health care was worth paying for, they fought every step of the way. And it is an embarrassment to us and our country," Stewart said.
Stewart urged members of the press not to talk to the public officials supporting the bill -- including New York Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, Democratic Reps. Carolyn Maloney, Jerry Nadler and Republican Rep. Peter King, N.Y. -- but to instead get the survivors with him to share their stories while they still could.
"We've brought friends down here before and they're not here anymore, so get their stories out now so people can understand what the true cost of this is to these families," Stewart said of the men and women who have passed away from 9/11-related illnesses.
One such story came from Karen Gaines, the wife of fallen firefighter Scott Gaines, who died of tonsil cancer in 2017.
"I stand before you as a widow and part of a growing community I never thought would exist," Gaines said.
"My husband died waiting for the VCF and believing that this country was going to stand here and protect his family when he couldn't. So, I only stand as one person, but representing a much larger community that desperately needs Congress' help to please fully fund the VCF," she said.
Stewart, who said he wouldn't comment on any other matters related to the president, made a point to say how well the program was going under the current Justice Department. It was working so well, in fact, the funds were running out, Stewart said.
The new bill, Gillibrand said, would not have a cap on funds and is written to allow for "all sums deemed necessary."
John Feal, an advocate and 9/11 first responder who lost part of his foot in the aftermath of the attack, said he'd been to Washington seven times since October, when the VCF first warned there were insufficient funds to meet all the claims through the initial 2020 expiration date for the funding. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Feal estimated he'd attended over 1,400 meetings in 15 years to secure the federal funds, adding up to "more tenure and more time than most freshmen congressman on the Hill."
Feal, frustrated and quick with his speech, gave thanks to his supporters, from Stewart to Gillibrand, but pointed the attention to his sick friends and colleagues. Public officials were destined to leave Washington or switch to different issues -- but he pledged to keep walking the halls in the days and weeks to come.
"I'm in the mood for a fight -- and we're going to get us a bill this year," Feal said. "You're either with us or you're against us."